Author - Linda Sanders

Following Arizona tune-up, Jim Walmsley targets historic Olympics trials

By Larry Carroll

When it comes to sports, sometimes stepping outside your lane can be seen as a major affront. Which is strange, because as anyone from a world-class athlete to your run-of-the-mill gym rat will tell you: The best exercise is the one your body doesn’t expect, something that pushes you outside your routine and forces the body to adapt.

Which is why one of the more fascinating stories in the ultra-running community these days is Jim Walmsley’s quest to try his luck with next month’s U.S Olympic Marathon Trials. As Walmsley trains to go down in distance, from being an ultra-runner to a standard marathon participant, he has been facing considerable backlash, both online and elsewhere. It’s no secret that the marathon community sees him as something of an outsider, so after years of insisting that ultra runners are different animals whose 30-mile training runs are nothing like the sub-5 minute splits needed to be a competitive marathoner, many view Walmsley’s dream as something akin to a publicity stunt.

But Walmsley has never been the type to take on a challenge and then fold like a deck chair. This is an athlete whose resume of wins reads like a list of the most difficult ultra-racing events in the world: Western States (twice), Lake Sonoma (twice), Bandera, JFK (three times), Moab … and the list just goes on and on. Which is why he has just as many supporters who are quick to point out that this isn’t an ego trip.

And then there’s the one thing both sides have in common: A desire to see how this whole thing plays out. Like Michael Jordan attempting baseball, or Conor McGregor stepping into a boxing ring with Floyd Mayweather, curiosity is piqued by the question of whether the skills of one discipline will translate to the other.

“I’d say I’m not in contention for the top three,” Walmsley told the Arizona Daily Sun recently. “The goal, more or less, is to be competitive and try to hold my own. … At the end of the day, I still have ultrarunning. I still have my day job.”

It sounds like Walmsley hopes that if he does get a crack at the Olympics, his unique training will present some sort of opportunity to overcome an obstacle that traditional marathoners would have a more difficult time grappling with.

“You never know,” Walmsley said. “I bring something to this race, a toolbox, others don’t. The race could turn out like, ‘Well, I’m the only one who brought this wrench. I can do that.’ You never know.”

Believe it or not, Walmsley — a Phoenix, Arizona native who just turned 30 earlier this month — has never run a marathon in his life. But he did set a Grand Canyon rim-to-rim record, and last year he won the World Mountain Running title. In 2019 he also set the world record for fastest 50 miles, running it at 4:50:08, which puts him at an average of about 5:48 per mile — not too far off the pace of a solid marathoner, but he still has much work to do.

“For an ultrarunner, [this] challenges the status quo for how we are stereotyped,” Walmsley says of his current mindset, just days after Ultra-Running magazine named him Ultrarunner of the year for the fourth year in a row. “Challenging that and putting up a good fight, that sort of thing, is more or less the bigger story that I’m after by doing this.”

On Sunday, Walmsley ran the Rock N Roll half-marathon in Phoenix. He finished with a time of 1:02:13, putting him at a pace time of 4:44. It’s the latest workout in a training regimen that has had him averaging 161 miles a week (with two weeks of 175 miles) over the last several weeks. But will it be enough?

“There’s just an unknown about it, whether the strength from running trails and the high volume I do now will translate to something that’s maybe closer to my top potential for the marathon,” Walmsley says, looking forward to next month’s Olympics trials. “With the hills in Atlanta, there’s no certain time that’s going to get you there to the top three. People aren’t sure what it’s going to take, so why not put your nose in that?”


HURT 100 pushes aside scary conditions, crowns winners Fuchs and Albrecht

By: Larry Carroll

As the 2020 HURT 100 approached, things felt … ominous. The annual Honolulu event is typically set in paradise, but this year’s recent weather in paradise has been less than ideal. On January 12, organizers for the race posted a warning:

“Recent high winds and heavy rains may result in poor trail conditions. While we are hopeful that conditions will improve leading up to the event, January weather on O’ahu is very unpredictable … Currently, the HURT course is mired in water, mud, and fallen trees.”

Not exactly music to a runner’s ears. But ultimately, the course was cleared (mostly), the weather cooperated, and the 20+ year-old iconic ultramarathon once again did not disappoint.

The big winner was Trevor Fuchs, who finished muddied and exhausted, but with a big smile on his face. The Ogden, Utah native ran his 100 miles in a time of 22:04:49, more than a half hour ahead of his closest competitor.

“When I first started running, I would have never guessed the places it would take me,” Fuchs wrote on his Instagram a few days before the race, looking forward to a big 2020 that has since started out on the best foot imaginable. “I would have never guessed the friendships I would make or the community that would become such a vital part of my life. I would have never guessed the opportunities that running would present. I am so incredibly grateful, honored, and stoked beyond measure to share that I have joined the @salomonrunning U.S. team. This coming year will have no shortage of adventure with Hardrock and UTMB in the summer. But in a few days, I get to start this thing off with a bang in Hawaii at the HURT 100 as a Salomon athlete.”

Featuring nearly 25,000 feet of vertical ascent, completing this race in the rainforests of Honolulu is anything but a given. Named for the Hawaii Ultra Running Team (HURT), a group of eccentric athletes who trained together on Maui’s jungle-covered mountains, the race was invented when they got sick of traveling all the way to the mainland to find competition. Known for its roots-heavy trails and humid temperatures, it has grown into one of the most beloved 100-milers in the ultra-running community.

On the women’s side, local favorite Anna Albrecht led the pack. The Honolulu native finished 15th overall, with a time of 28:55:50. She also finished more than 3 hours ahead of the second-place women’s participant.

About a week before her run, Albrecht posted a picture of herself kissing the famous sign that serves as a ritual for those who finish the HURT. “I’m so excited and nervous for this journey. It’s been the CRAZIEST ride since my name was drawn in August,” she wrote on Instagram. “This is going to be the hardest race of my life but I’m so ready to go to battle with it. Bring on the blisters, tears, sweaty cast, nerve pain, and bliss. Can’t wait to dance in the jungle for a couple days with all my crazy friends.”

Dance, she did – and she danced well enough to lead the pack. Here’s the women’s Top 10:

1. Anna Albrecht (Honolulu, Hawaii): 28:55:50

2. Denise Bourassa (Lakewood, Colorado): 32:03:50

3. Suzanna Bon (Sonoma, California): 32:19:46

4. Michiko Uchiyama (Shizuoka, Japan): 32:46:58

5. Chelsey Topping (Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada): 33:01:15

6. Jody Sanborn (Banner, Wyoming): 33:24:17

7. Jessica Hardy (Dana Point, California): 33:39:01

8. Hannah Perry (Vancouver, Canada): 33:54:36

9. Candice Burt (Leavenworth, Washington): 33:56:46

10. Mayuko Floyd (San Diego, California): 34:39:10

Men’s Top Ten:

1. Trevor Fuchs (Ogden, Utah): 22:04:49

2. Nate Jaqua (Eugene, Oregon): 22:37:34

3. Brandon Stapanowich (Colorado Springs, CO): 23:28:07

4. Tomokazu Ihara (Takao, Japan): 23:57:20

5. Takeshi Noda (Yokohama, Japan): 24:54:38

6. Daniel List (Santa Maria, California): 26:01:05

7. Will Jones IV (Bellingham, Washington): 26:24:47

8. Tim McDononough (St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada): 26:48:05

9. Shin Iwatare (Suginami, Japan): 27:05:43

10. Sergio Florian (Kaaawa, Hawaii): 27:07:26

Contrasted with the final results, the halfway leaders show that Fuchs, Stapanowich, Jaqua and Ihara were in the driver’s seat for pretty much the entirety of the HURT 100. Also worth noting is the return of Tracy Garneau, who set the course record in 2010. Now 50 years old, Garneau unfortunately was unable to finish.


With Western States, Courtney Dauwalter closes out a stunning year

by Larry Carroll

As the summer officially descends upon us, the ultra-running community is asking itself one question: Which will be hotter in the next few months, the temperature on the trail or Courtney Dauwalter?

For those paying attention, the Colorado-based 34-year-old has strung together twelve months of running that are becoming the stuff of legend. It began with a dominant Western States 100 win in June of 2018 that was more than 2 hours faster than the 2017 Women’s winner. Now, as the Western States is on us once again, observers are left wondering how she’ll bookend this year of dominance.

Will she beat everyone at the Western States, both female and male? It certainly seems possible, as she has done exactly that in nearly a dozen other ultras, and last year’s 17:27:00 time would have made her competitive with many past male winners. Will she turn the race into a laugher? Also possible, as a 240-miler in Moab, Utah once had Dauwalter finishing 10 hours ahead of second place.

For many athletes, winning the Western States and then training for the next would be enough. But in between the two, the former high school science teacher has never stopped running — or winning.

A few weeks after the Western States, she ran a 50 miler in Squamish, British Columbia. She then returned to Colorado for the Continental Divide Trail Run a week later, finishing first in the 50K. 

Those were likely just warm-ups, however, for the Tahoe 200 Endurance Run, which took place in September. All she did was destroy the previous women’s record by 18 hours, running a race whose requirement is that it be finished in 100 hours — while doing it in less than half that.

Then came Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra. Taking place in October, Dauwalter made headlines by covering a distance of 279 miles in three days. The brutal Tennessee-based event has one basic rule, as simple as it is punishing: The last one running wins. After 68 hours of running without sleep, she found herself alone with male competitor Johan Steene, ultimately settling for second place.

After taking a break for the holidays and admittedly doing a lot of sitting, Dauwalter roared back in February with New Zealand’s Tarawera Ultra. Posting a start-to-finish women’s win, she dominated the 102 km race and celebrated her 34th birthday shortly thereafter.

Next up was March’s Behind the Rocks Ultra in Moab (1st place), April’s Madeira Island Ultra-Trail (1st place) and June’s Mueller Marathon in Divide, Colorado (also 1st place).

Dauwalter has indicated that, following this year’s Western States, she has plans to tackle many other big races and give the 24-Hour World Championships another shot. The next question on the minds of observers, then, seems to be an obvious one: Could her upcoming 12 months be even more impressive?

Photo credit @ Lavaredo Ultra Trail 


Lessons to Learn When You Don’t Finish the Race

by Larry Carroll

To an outsider, headlines coming from the recent Barkley Marathon must have seemed frustrating. For the second straight year, not a single person finished the race? Out of 40 participants, they all went home without crossing the finish line? What’s the point?

Experienced ultra-runners, however, undoubtedly read things a bit differently. Naturally, finishing a race is always preferred — and to strap on your shoes means that you intend to give heart, body, soul and gallons of sweat to achieve that goal. But DNF’s are simply a reality of life, and sometimes the lessons you learn from a “Did Not Finish” are invaluable on future runs.

With that in mind, here are just a few of the things a “DNF” can teach you about yourself, your body, and the adversities of trail-running. Because as the old saying goes: You can lose the battle, but still win the war.

Your Rest Level – How well did you sleep the night before the race? How about the night before that? Did you sleep at home, or in a hotel? And when you were on the trail, was exhaustion an issue?

To many elite athletes looking to spend hour after hour pushing themselves to the physical limit, that level of rest is a key factor in performance. In general, adults should strive for 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night — and it’s almost a guarantee that for several days after a marathon, you’ll average another hour or two as your body recovers.

But how much sleep you get right before the marathon is a personal choice akin to any other facet of training. You need to know your body, know how much caffeine will help you/hurt you in achieving that goal, and act accordingly. And much like having a bad workout, a bad run can be both a bummer and an opportunity to learn. If you didn’t feel well rested on the trail, take notes on what you did the night before, and in the future adjust accordingly.

Are You Running Correctly? – Take a look at this blog entry (Going Wide: The Role of Stride Width in Running Injury and Economy) by physical therapist/ultra-runner Joe Uhan and you’ll begin to see all the possibilities for bad habits that can set in when we’re doing what seems like the most natural activity in the world: Running.

Narrow strides, hip weakness, forward trunk engagement and other such issues are only a few things to consider as you run. Like a golf swing or a baseball pitcher’s motion, it looks so effortless to the untrained eye — but when done correctly, you’re looking at maximized potential, body discipline, and the unflinching ability to repeat a motion time and again without variation.

Do you need to adjust your own landing or push-off? Are you running economically? A DNF may signal your own need to see a physical therapist, strip your running style down to its bare elements, and rebuild it for better results.

How to Avoid Injury – Many DNF’s occur because of injury, or the fear of causing one. Both offer valuable learning opportunities for the runner.

If this is your first run after recovering from an injury, perhaps the DNF is telling you that you should have waited longer. As frustrating as it is, your body is basically telling you that you’ll need to adapt to the new reality of a body part not functioning as well as it once did. Does this mean your ultra-running days are over? Of course not, but it may indicate that you’ll have to start running more by intellect and less by instinct.

On the other hand, perhaps you bowed out of the race because some part of your body didn’t feel right. Of course, no marathon goes without some degree of discomfort, but your post-mortem on the race should include an examination of possible factors. What did you eat in the hours before the run? How about on the trail itself? What behaviors did you observe while stretching? Should they be adjusted? These and other such questions might pay off in future races, so that you won’t experience that same injury fear again.

Weather Adaptability – With every ultra-marathon, weather and terrain is a huge factor. So, what did you learn from your DNF?

Perhaps it’s that your clothing was insufficient to cope with the elements. Perhaps you learned that your running shoes weren’t appropriate, that they weren’t as waterproof as advertised, or didn’t grip the trail to your liking.

When you’re out on the trail, you also have the opportunity to learn about yourself, so make sure you’re listening. Did the heat bother you more than you expected? Have you always considered yourself a good night runner, but for some reason it didn’t go so well this time? Such things can be taken into consideration for future races, and the selections of which to run.

How Do You Bounce Back? – Most importantly, a DNF teaches you about your resilience. How do you fare in the face of what some may perceive as a defeat? Are you the kind of person who jumps right back on the horse, plots a careful return, or simply throws in the towel? Will you start back with a smaller race and build off that success? Or will you return with a similar race, determined to prove the “DNF” was a fluke?

So learn your lessons, adjust accordingly, and get back out there. Because ultimately it’s the bounce back, not the failure, that speaks volumes about any athlete.


Every Ultra-Runner’s Secret Weapon: Socks?

By Larry Carroll

Let’s face the facts: Running shoes are sexy. Shorts get lots of attention, tees display messages that tell everyone a runner is serious, silly, or sweating for a cause. Then there are the accessories: packs to carry, GPS trackers that boast the allure of new tech, and of course nothing makes you look cooler than a good pair of sunglasses.

But the one thing (almost) every runner wears, and very few observers ever notice, is socks. They’re boring, they’re simple — and if chosen incorrectly, they could make a huge difference between a smooth run and one dogged by pain and discomfort.  

As Albus Dumbledore said in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”: One can never have enough socks. So, let’s give some love to the unsung secret weapon of ultra-runners everywhere, as we consider the reasons why proper sock selection is crucial.

Hold The Cotton – Sure, if your plan is to Netflix and Chill on your couch on a Friday night, cotton socks are a comfy choice. But those in the running community know that cotton is a terrible material for sweating, as it absorbs moisture and causes blisters. On hot days and in wet weather especially, it should be avoided at all costs — instead, preferred footwear options will typically contain merino or synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon or spandex. What you need is a fabric that dries quickly, breathes well, and protects your feet mile after mile.

How Low Can You Go? – While a lot of elite athletes prefer the “no show” look, lately crew length has returned from 80s exile to become the norm. It isn’t just a comfort issue, however — when you’re running on trails, taller socks can act as a barrier against brush scrapes and keep dust and dirt from accumulating. For this and other reasons, knee-length socks are the preferred option for many runners, because they cover the whole calf.

Don’t Decompress – Compression socks are all the rage these days, with many athletes thinking they speed up recovery, improve blood flow to the muscles and lessen fatigue. Snug fitting and stretchy, when worn correctly these socks will squeeze your leg and make you feel better on the trail.

As with running shoes, the key to compression socks is making sure they fit properly. It is recommended that runners use a tape measure to get the circumference of the ankle, and measure the widest part of the calves, before purchasing compression socks accordingly.

Minimize the Annoyance – If you choose your running socks well, you’ll never have to think about them. If you choose poorly, they will dominate your thoughts for mile after mile.

For instance, durability is a major concern because you’re going to be putting serious mileage on your feet and if a hole develops, it most likely will not be pleasant. Similarly, consider the seam, which could rub you the wrong way — quite literally. Thankfully, many socks today are seamless, presenting heel-to-toe comfort for those who prefer the seamless lifestyle.

Smell You Later – It’s a reality of running: Your socks are going to smell bad. But many socks offer options to diminish the odor, from wool to moisture-wicking fibers to silver ions that supposedly kill germs. Such factors are worth considering — particularly if you have a partner brave enough to do your laundry.

Extra Support – Some socks have silicone pyramids that massage the Achilles tendon; others have toes, maximizing blister protection; others still have dual layers that rub against each other to prevent chafing. There are socks that conform to the left and right structure of the foot — and don’t even get us started on cushioning options. The bottom line is, no matter what you’re looking for in a sock it seems to be out there — so compare notes with other runners in your life, and proceed accordingly.

What’s Your Style? – Last but certainly not least, a runner’s socks offer one last chance to personalize a look.

While many are purely functional, others come in a variety of styles and colors. Are you inclined to go fluorescent, so you’ll be easier to see on the trail? Or maybe have your own socks custom-made with a design, logo or message for all to see? Yeah, socks can be a little boring — but only if you want them to be that way.


Badwater Salton Sea shifting focus back to 3-person teams for 2019

by Larry Carroll

Appropriately enough for a race that stands out with its two and three person team style, last year’s Badwater Salton Sea 81-Mile Ultramarathon was marked by its camaraderie and sportsmanship. As teams amiably fist-bumped passing competitors, team Too Legit to Quit proved worthy of their moniker while taking first place.

Of course, part of the fun for this particular race is watching the athletes adjust their strategies to embrace a format that demands each member of the team stay within 25 meters of each other, essentially running the entire 81 mile race in single file. The other fun part is watching these eccentric teams coalesce under such names as “Huey, Dewey and Louie,” “That Married Couple,” “Funky Pickles,” or for the follicly-challenged among us, the inspiring “Bald and the Beautiful.”

It’s no surprise, then, that as AdventureCorps counts down to the next run, they are keeping the focus on teamwork.

“We worked well together,” runners Walker Higgins and Dan McHugh of Too Legit to Quit, seen hugging after crossing the finish line first, said after their first place finish last year. “We were very opposite in many ways. When he was strong for the first half, he pulled and cut the wind for a good 30 miles. Then I started feeling strong on the trail. We talked and communicated and respected each other, and it worked.”

Of the 36 teams that started the 2018 race, 35 crossed the finish line. Without a doubt, AdventureCorps is hoping for similar results with the 2019 race, scheduled for April 28th. From Salton City (elevation: 234 feet below sea level) to Palomar Mountain (the tallest mountain in San Diego County, competitors will once again run on a challenging mix of road and trail, with a total elevation gain of more than 9000 feet.

This year’s Badwater Salton Sea has been capped with a limit of approximately 115 runners, consisting of twenty 2-runner teams and twenty-five 3-runner teams. The race will feature runners from 23 American states, as well as countries including Australia, Poland, Russia, Moldova, Japan and the Cayman Islands.

There are many things that make this race stand out from the pack, most notable being the “Team Ultra Racing” format. Long before the first step has been taken, a runner must consider who his teammate(s) will be — and select those with a similar running style and pace. Beyond that, you can determine whether you’d like to run with a same-gender partner or a mixed race (teams of two men and one women, or 1 man and two women, are considered equal). If you choose well, the result could be a once-in-a-lifetime bonding experience alongside someone else who similarly enjoys talking to pass the time or staying quiet to concentrate; if you choose poorly, it could yield 81 miles of staying within 25 meters of someone who is like a pebble in your shoe.

The Badwater Salton Sea website recommends several intriguing methods for selecting a teammate. Among those: “Why not pick teammates with whom you actually compete directly? You’re likely the same speed, so why not work together instead of against each other, for a change? Why not ‘bury the hatchet,’ so to speak?”

Such a Kumbaya moment is undoubtedly inspiring, as is another nugget of guidance the site offers for team selection: “What about fellow runners that you are mentoring, whether ‘formally’ or just in a friendly way? Why not help another runner have an amazing experience in your company, with you playing the role of ‘grizzled old veteran’ or Jedi of ultra-running? There is no Luke Skywalker without Obi-Wan Kenobi, after all.”

It would be easy to get distracted talking about the Badwater Salton Sea as one of the most demanding and extreme races in the world — after all, its centerpiece is an 8-mile, 3500 foot single-track trail ascent — but ultimately, what the folks at AdventureCorps want to focus on is the life-changing opportunity to bond with other runners. Which is why the company is pushing harder for 3x teams to compete.

“With no offense intended towards any 2x teams – past, present, or future – we want more 3x teams to compete because that’s the original spirit of the event and because it’s harder to enter – and finish – as an intact 3x team,” the company explains on its site, alongside an entrance fee which is actually cheaper if you have more runners, and guaranteed slots in the Badwater 135 for 3x teams who win their division. 

For the first two years of the race, only 3x teams were allowed. Now, in hopes for “a transcendent and meaningful [experience that] will resonate far and beyond after the race is over,” the Badwater Salton Sea is embracing its roots and reminding runners that while there is no “I” in team, there are three of them in sociability.


Lake Sonoma 50 features women’s field ready to topple a record pace

by Larry Carroll

As David Bowie once famously sang: “Changes are taking the pace I’m going through.” This year, participants in the Lake Sonoma 50 can be forgiven if that song is stuck in their heads as they set their own pace.

An iconic endurance race for more than a decade, the highly competitive Sonoma 50 has made a name for itself circumnavigating the gorgeous hiking trails on the Warm Springs arm of Lake Sonoma. This year, however, the race begins its second decade with a new race director — and a headlining cast of female athletes certain to put on a great show.

“It’s a great run — hard, but not stupid-hard — scenic, rugged, remote, and almost all single-track that with its continual ups, downs, twists, and turns wears you down,” outgoing director John Medinger recently told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat ( Lottery opens for insanely difficult Lake Sonoma 50 race ) upon stepping down to make way for Skip Brand to take over the position. “You give it your all for a really long time, and then you celebrate your finish with your friends.”

Brand, an ultrarunner and the owner of Healdsburg Running Company, is taking over the Sonoma 50 because the 67-year-old Medinger — the founder of Ultrarunning magazine who estimates he has run more than 110,000 miles in his life — is dialing back his commitments following 37 years devoted to the endurance running community.

Those who closely follow the Sonoma 50 are accustomed to a registration of only 400 runners, in a competitive race that rewards the top two men and women racers with guaranteed entry into the Western States Endurance run. They are also used to a race that embraces the spirit of giving — indeed, more than $200,000 have been given to charity by the race since it began. What they may not be prepared for, however, is the amount of drama heading into this year’s installment on April 13.

In 2018, the 10th installment of the race saw Jim Walmsley not only breaking his own course record, but doing it by so much that he was the first participant to ever finish in less than 6 hours. Walmsley took off and ran solo for much of the race, gaining incremental time on his previous course record from miles 12 through 38. Over on the women’s side, Keely Henninger similarly dominated from the beginning, nearly also setting the record but instead settling for the 2nd fastest women’s finish ever.

With that backstory in place, the 2019 Sonoma 50 takes center stage with a women’s field that is particularly stacked. In addition to Henninger’s returning attempt to break that record, registrants include such top names as Taylor Nowlin (winner of the Under Armour Copper Mountain 50k), Camelia Mayfield (winner of the Peterson Ridge Rumble 20 mile, Under Armour Mt. Bachelor 50k and Waldo 100k) and Abby Mitchell (winner of the Silverton Alpine 50k and the Austin Rattler 66k). As if those names aren’t enough, the Sonoma 50 will also feature such formidable athletes as Nicole Buurma, Kami Semick, Kelly Wolf and Julia Stamps.

Much like past installments, the 2019 Sonoma 50 will consist of 25 miles running into the hillside surrounding Lake Sonoma, then 25 back over the mostly single-track terrain. Views should be stunning, the wildflowers are already in abundance, and the race will once again pride itself on the unusual tradition of starting all the runners together.

If there are any changes to be made by Brand in his first year at the helm, he’s keeping them close to the vest. One goal he has already revealed, however, is to open future installments of the Sonoma 50 to include more local runners.

“We have our fair share of endurance athletes here in Sonoma County,” he recently told the Press Democrat. “There’s no reason why we can’t have a larger number of local people give it a go.”

Energy Gels

Energy Gels and Goo — What’s Really in the Pouch?

By Larry Carroll

In 2018, the athletic footwear business was a $16 billion industry. In the United States alone, more than 60 million people consider themselves runners, joggers or trail runners — a number that climbs to more than 110 million who walk for fitness. As you can imagine, all these people need something to supplement their efforts, nourishment that they hope will improve both performance and overall health.

If you are one of these millions of people — or have been around one — there’s a good chance that you’ve tasted the gels that often adorn their fuel belts. Housed in small, brightly-colored pouches, the substances typically come in all kinds of Pinkberry-sounding flavors like Salted Caramel, Chocolate Outrage and Gingerade — and taste a bit like cake frosting squirted directly into your mouth. In a billion-dollar industry, gels and goos (the words are often interchangeable) have grown exponentially since research scientist Dr. Bill Vaughan formulated the first GU energy gel in 1993 in a Berkeley kitchen — launching GU Energy Labs, one of the biggest players in the market.

“Drinks are good in that they empty the stomach quickly,” his son and the company’s current president, Brian Vaughan, explains in an interview on the product’s site ( 25years of GU: The Invention of the energy ‘Gel‘ ) “Bars and solid foods are good in that they provide nutrients, but they both have limits to them. As a research scientist [my father] began to play around with formulations. And so, through a series of reductions of that bar concept, he came up with simpler complex carbohydrates, amino acids, muscle buffers, electrolytes … you don’t have to destroy your muscles, providing you can supply the right nutrients at the right time.”

As is the case with any successful business model, there are many different companies now elbowing each other for market share. In addition to GU, runners have a choice between gels from Honey Stinger, Clif, Huma, PowerBar and others. What they have in common is a desire to top off glycogen as it gets depleted by offering simple sugar — after that, it’s up to the athlete to seek out brands with carbohydrates (glucose, fructose), electrolytes (for running in warmer weather) sodium (for those with salty sweat), or whatever else their personal needs may dictate.

But when all is said and done, are goos and gels worth the hype? A 2016 analysis from radio station WBUR interviewed dietitians and Sports Medicine experts and concluded that in some ways, energy gels are the exercise version of Santa Claus.

“They’re a wonderful thing to believe in on the starting line, and during training. Just as believing in Santa gets us in the spirit of giving around the holidays, maybe GU gets us in the spirit of competing,” the article concludes (As Olympians Suck Down Energy Gels, A Believer In ‘GU’ Gel Seeks Reality Check ). “The magic of GU maybe not in the specialized chemical formula, but more in the convenient packaging. It is certainly easier to slip a small gel-pack into your pocket during a long run than it is to carry a cup of coffee and a slice of bread.”

In short, many of the benefits of these gels can be consumed just as effectively via traditional pre-exercise meals, or such grab-and-go foods as bananas or bagels, but that little packet on your fuel belt gives you a smaller amount in a form that takes effect much faster. So, to goo or not to goo? At the end of the day, such questions are all about what it takes to get you across your own personal finish line.

Natural Diet

Why is it so hard to consume a “Natural” diet?

by Larry Carroll

It’s a buzzword you can’t avoid at your local supermarket, restaurant or selecting your snack of choice: All-natural. But what does such a designation truly mean?

Like so much in the average American diet, we look to the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration to watch out for our better interests.

In the eyes of the 156-year-old USDA, the terms “natural” and “all-natural” are interchangeable. The cabinet-level agency that oversees the American farming industry is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry and eggs — and according to the USDA definition, food cannot contain artificial ingredients or preservatives — and must be minimally processed — to qualify as “natural.”

But this is where things can get substantially complicated. For one, the USDA does not conduct inspections to verify the applications of food producers. Furthermore, foods labeled “natural” may contain antibiotics, growth hormones or other chemicals that your average consumer may consider far from “natural.”

Since the rest of our food is covered by the FDA, it’s no surprise that they are also waist-deep in the “natural” debate. In mid-2018, the agency announced that it is close to issuing standards that will define the word.

“I feel strongly that the FDA can do more to assist the American public with creating healthier diets for themselves and their families,” agency commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a speech (https://www.foodprocessing.com/industrynews/2018/fdas-gottleib-promises-further-steps-on-defining-natural-salt-reduction-goal/), insisting that the claim be made on scientific research and up-to-date nutrition criteria. “We have a real opportunity to reduce the burden of chronic disease through better nutrition. But this is something we can only tackle together, by making better choices easier.”

Ultimately, there seems to be a huge disconnect between what common sense would seem to dictate as “natural” and what is currently allowed onto shelves using the term.  

“Although the FDA has not engaged in rulemaking to establish a formal definition for the term ‘natural,’ we do have a longstanding policy concerning the use of ‘natural’ in human food labeling,” the agency said in a statement on its official site requesting comments on use of the term (https://www.fda.gov/food/guidanceregulation/guidancedocumentsregulatoryinformation/labelingnutrition/ucm456090.htm). “The FDA has considered the term ‘natural’ to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.”

The statement then goes on to caution: “This policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The FDA also did not consider whether the term ‘natural’ should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.”

Which basically means that if you’re looking at “natural” as a word on food packaging that indicates a healthier food alternative, you could be making a grave mistake. It also means that companies can currently throw around the term without much accountability.

But ultimately, any diet that seeks “natural” food seems destined to fail. If you’re consuming apples, grapes and similar fruits and vegetables, even an exclusively organic diet is bound to grapple with some level of pesticides, synthetic foods and GMO concerns. If you choose grass-fed beef, those cattle may have been fed the closest thing to a natural diet as possible — but what have chemicals and factories done to the grass those animals are consuming?

It’s enough to drive anyone crazy, and the only thing as bad as an unhealthy body is an unhealthy mind.

After making waves last year with his revelation that the FDA would clarify its stance on “natural” foods, Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb recently announced his plans to resign (https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/05/politics/gottlieb-resigning-fda-health-bn/index.html). Whether the next Commissioner will prioritize the issue remains to be seen — in the meantime, Americans searching for effective, clear-cut ways to live a healthier lifestyle, can only hope that clarification is on the horizon.


Pop Tarts and Donuts — why do ultra-runners love them?

by Larry Carroll

When it comes to nutrition, certain things seem inarguable. Eat your fruits and veggies, just like your mother used to insist. Avoid foods that are steeped in sugar, processed materials and high fructose corn syrup. But if such beliefs are so etched in stone, why are ultra-runners as likely to see their competitors eating like Gwyneth Paltrow as they are Homer Simpson?

“There are a TON of runners I’ve seen on social media, like Instagram and Twitter who post nothing but Pop-Tart pictures it seems,” marvels a reddit user in a forum on athlete nutrition . Echoes another: “I hired a running coach who is an ultra-marathon runner. He says he always consumes frosted strawberry pop tarts and a Dr. Pepper before a race. I didn’t know this was a thing!”

Pop Tarts and Donuts – why do ultra-runners love them?

At Ultra-Running Magazine, author/runner Cory Reese recently detailed his 2018 run of the “Donut Trail.” Covering 100 miles throughout rural Ohio, Reese hit twelve gourmet donut shops, stopping just long enough to satisfy his sweet tooth before heading back out on the trek. His wife and daughter met him every few miles to refill his water, serve as a guide — and keep extra donuts in the car for nighttime, when the donut shops he reached were closed.

“I ate a German chocolate cake donut. A cheesecake donut. A banana cream pie donut. A Fruity Pebbles donut,” he writes . “Excess glucose was clouding my vision. It didn’t take long before my bloodstream became 60% glazed frosting.”

Pop Tarts and Donuts — why do ultra-runners love them?

“I ate a German chocolate cake donut. A cheesecake donut. A banana cream pie donut. A Fruity Pebbles donut,” he writes . “Excess glucose was clouding my vision. It didn’t take long before my bloodstream became 60% glazed frosting.”

To someone outside the ultra-marathoning community, such behavior seems paradoxical at best, at worst simply downright insane. After all, there’s a reason why you don’t go to your local gym and see people on the treadmill scarfing down Twinkies, right? But when you’re on the inside of this frequently eccentric community and surrounded by such behavior, it makes a bit more sense.

“Ultra-runners will eat whatever their stomachs can handle before and during races,” explains another Reddit user on the nutrition thread. “The more calorie-dense, the better. A friend of mine loves it when the aid stations have Oreos and flat Coke – and they often do.”

Pop Tarts and Donuts — why do ultra-runners love them?

Indeed, some ultra-marathons aim to attract participants with promises of beer, cupcakes and other sugary treats — sometimes after the race, often during it. When someone is willing to put in so much work, it seems, they deserve a treat. It’s another edict instilled in us by mom while we were young.

Although much of the evidence is anecdotal, there certainly is enough to make you think there must be something to a get-fit-eating-fat diet. Amelia Boone is a 3-time World’s Toughest Mudder champion — and over on Twitter last year, she posted her “Definitive Pop-Tart rankings ,” listing Frosted Cherry, Vanilla Latte and Pumpkin Pie behind Cinnamon Roll, while pausing to pay respect to Blue Raspberry with an “RIP” designation.
In a Sports Illustrated interview , Boone explained her sugar-fueled fitness routine: “I will eat a Pop-Tart before every race. They’re easily digestible carbs. Some people use gels and goos and things like that [and this is no different]. That’s really what this is, a quick source of carbs that sits well in my stomach.”

Over on his “Married Runners” blog, Georgia-based athlete Joe Domaleski posts recipes for paleo meals and nutritious smoothies — and defends his trans-fat transgressions with an entry titled “I’m a Runner and I Love Donuts .”

“Life is full of contradictions, and is simply too short just to eat salads all of the time,” he writes. “A single donut is not as bad for you as many other processed food items. On the other hand, it’s hard to eat just one donut and that’s where folks get into trouble.”

Ultimately, it seems, training is about maintenance of both body and spirit — and mixing in some sugary carbs as a reward can be helpful to both.

“Donuts as health food? Well, I guess that depends on how you define health,” writes Domaleski. “Obviously you won’t find a lot of nutritional benefit from donuts, but nutrition isn’t the only component to health. How about mental health and cultivating a general sense of feeling good? Yup, donuts do that for me. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that upon that basis then, donuts can be a health food.”